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Repudiating Fanaticism after the Westgate Mall Massacre


The carefully planned attack by al-Shabab on civilians in Nairobi's Westgate Mall carried the pathology of rage and the logic of fanaticism to unspeakable extremes. Imagine deciding on the life or death of any person, but particularly a child, by whether or not they could name the mother of Muhammed or recite a verse from the Quran.

Islamic fanaticism should be condemned with the moral fervour appropriate to such a violation of the most fundamental norms of respect for innocence and human dignity. To gun down at random whoever happened to be shopping at Westgate Mall on the fateful day of September 21 risks carrying political violence and accompanying hatred beyond the point of no return.

150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial”>Beyond Kenya and al-Shabab

It was a disturbing synchronicity that on the following day outside an Anglican Church in Peshawar, Pakistan, two suicide bombers detonated explosives that killed more than 80 people as they were leaving the church after religious services. An extremist Islamic organisation in Pakistan, TTP Jundullah, shamelessly claimed responsibility, offering an unabashedly fanatic explanation: "They are enemies of Islam. Therefore, we target them. We will continue the attacks on non-Muslims in Pakistan."

Contained in such a statement is the absolutism of a jihadist mandate to eliminate infidels, especially those who practice other religions, combined with an ultra-nationalist insistence that non-Muslims and foreigners in Pakistan live at their peril. They have been, if effect, sentenced to death, and should leave the country if they wish to survive. Of course, this anti-Christian atrocity needs to be understood against a background of colonial and post-colonial intervention, covert and overt, in Pakistan. Christianity epitomises this pernicious presence of the West for these fanatic xenophobes.

There is in the background of the awful events in Kenya a furious response to the long term efforts of outsiders, whether from Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda, or further afield, from the United States, to shape and manage the outcome of an intense internal struggle for the control and future of Somalia. Such interventions, especially from the West, whatever the motivation, encroach upon the inalienable right of self-determination that inheres in the people of Somalia, whether for better or worse.

There is no doubt that all interferences with the dynamics of self-determination, even when labelled "humanitarian" are viewed as "crimes against humanity" by sectors of the territorial population. However, such existential perceptions of abuse by outsiders can never be accepted as a valid excuse for committing crimes against humanity. Given the belief systems that occupy the minds of fanatics of the al-Shabab variety, we can expect more such appalling incidents.

150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial”>Blaming religion and Islam

Explaining the fanatic by deploring Islam and its adherents multiplies the challenges facing society rather than mitigates them by situating the source of the problem in Islam as a whole. Islamophobia as a response to 9/11 or to such awful incidents in Kenya and Pakistan pours vinegar on wounds experienced by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and yet it seems an inevitable reflex, which if carried to its own limit by opportunists and purists leads to a mimicry of the originating fanaticism. In its moralising rationalisations for violence against the innocent, the purported anti-fanatic operates in the same milieu of alienated consciousness as the fanatic. The one resembles the other in mentality and deed, although the fanatic is more likely to be sincere than the anti-fanatic who often acts out of ambition created by the situation rather than belief.

There is some reason to feel that fanaticism of this kind is largely a product of monotheistic religion and thought, specifically ideas of dualism separating good and evil, and the insistence that the human mind has access to "the truth" via the revelations of a single God that is applicable to all social and political relations. In this regard, the philosophic and religious traditions of the East do not seem, at first glance, to nurture such fanatical mentalities as emerge in the West: there is a rejection of dualism and a general acceptance of the view that there are a variety of ways to find fulfilment and salvation, and no single truth that is universally applicable. 150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-family:Arial”>No religion is immune

Even Buddhism, the religion that is most admired around the world for the valuing of compassion, can be lured into the situational camps of fanaticism as was clearly evident in the final stages of the holy war against the Tamils carried to genocidal extremes in Sri Lanka a few years ago, or in the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minorities in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar.

In other words, culture and political tensions can give rise to radical forms of denial of species or human identity as the essential imperative of people living together in peace and equity. 

There is no need to be a secular humanist to acknowledge the human family as encompassing the whole species. The inclusive side of all religions do open this moral and political space, although it is contested from within these traditions by those who champion exclusivist views. To affirm the human is fully compatible with loving God, gods, country, and family, and indeed it may be the only way to achieve a sustainable love.

As humans, we must shake the curse of fanaticism or we are doomed.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. mso-bidi-font-family:Arial”>        

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